Exploring Exhaustion and Energy Loss
I’ve been particularly exhausted, as is so often the case at the end of each school year. I often feel that the further I get into spring semester, the more I become tired, grumpy, and on edge. It’s as though my brain becomes over-worked, my body under-utilized, and my balance thrown totally off.
This year I’ve also been experiencing exhaustion as more than regular semester stress, and I feel certain it’s due to the routinization of daily assaults on personhood. It’s now routine to open social media and see violence, hate speech, and seemingly benign but still-hurtful comments indicating that the world isn’t burning up. Yet, my internal compass (and external thermostat) indicate that the world is on fire.
Just a few examples: This week I confront anew campus shootings and stabbings across the United States — direct, physical violence resulting in serious injury and death. These occur within campus rape culture in which students are writing to process sexual assault. Even as I hold final class sessions, I’m aware that others aren’t able to — blocked by the threats of physical harm and literal fear of assembling as a group. And my final classes take place against the backdrop of fifteen-year-old Jordan Edward killed by police this week and Congress now acting to further restrict access to healthcare. Assaults on personhood feel more immediate than ever.
I feel very much like I did in November when about all I could write for my first blog post was “Arrrrrggggghhhhh!!!!!”
Today, alongside this clear embodied anger, I feel a new weariness, an exhaustion that’s clouding my head. So, I want to listen more carefully and kindly to my heart, knowing it can help me figure out how to use my hands.
As a way to listen to my heart, body, and soul, I’ve been tracking this week where I’m losing energy. Whenever I notice a new heaviness or tiredness, I’m asking with curiosity:
What might be the source of this energy loss?
Using the RAIN meditation practice I learned through mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, I’m working to recognize and allow feelings of exhaustion in order to investigate them through a gentle non-judging stance.
As a contemplative practice, RAIN suggests four actions or steps that help with exploring, questioning, and (un)learning the conditions of everyday life. These four steps are:
- R — recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc.
- A — allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged.
- I — investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding.
- N — non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).
While there is an implied sequence or order, RAIN can be practiced again and again, so that later steps like investigating and non-judging create space for new recognizing and allowing.
Tracking energy loss this week, I’ve come to some new awareness and, more importantly, new lovingkindness toward myself. Rather than being down or disappointed that I’m exhausted, I’m working to let this experience be. Exhaustion can characterize this time in my life, and it can lead to new discoveries, possibilities, and even activism.
Here’s a view into my current work with RAIN:
- Recognition: I am frequently, daily experiencing a sense of tiredness, depleted energy, and even exhaustion. Though I’m also noticing occasions of energetic gain, excitement, and joy, my overall energy reserves are running low.
- Allowing: Rather than ignoring, silencing, or pushing down these tired feelings, I honor them. I allow myself to name that I’m running on fumes. Through allowing this experience, I also receive what information it delivers — like reminders to take care of myself lovingly and to dedicate even more time to rest and refuel.
- Investigation: As I investigate energy loss, I’m also noticing how much my emotions and overall energy are linked to interactions. I’m losing energy, for example, (1) when focusing on others’ reactions instead of my own actions, (2) when holding back or perceiving that others are holding back in conversation, and (3) when not knowing what’s mine versus what’s someone else’s. I’m working to name these and other sorts of energy loss. In doing so, I hope to find patterns and themes as I record each instance. Like the qualitative research I conduct and teach in school, this process invites me into the role of investigator. And as an investigator, I assume a more active and action-oriented stance toward understanding my exhaustion.
- Non-judgement: With curiosity instead of judgement, I notice guilt and shame as they arise around exhaustion, noting underlying expectations that I should be able to catch and prevent burnout before it occurs. The more that I shift gently toward non-judgement and non-identification, the more I feel and experience exhaustion without being exhausted. I can recognize, allow, and investigate this state without defining myself according to it. It simply is part of my life right now.
Exhaustion and energy loss are friends right now, friends who are helping me pay better attention to my emotions, to my heart. And my heart is heavy with grief, anger, and frustration. It’s no wonder that I’m feeling tired when carrying this extra weight.
Still, I believe in both/and: I can be both getting depleted from energy loss and learning to better shore up my energy reserves. I can be both disheartened by the assaults on personhood and wholeheartedly encouraged by people articulating and acting on commitments to justice. I can both launch a sharp critique of current injustices and soften into the introspective practice of RAIN. I can track both energy loss and energy gain.
To this last both/and — exploring energy loss alongside gain — I’ll share Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address, “Make Good Art” (an address I love sharing at this time of year, a time of exhaustion and also euphoria on college campuses):
Whenever I’m down, whenever I’m experiencing energy loss, I like to re-watch Gaiman’s address and his reminder to make good art:
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
I am tired. I am experiencing energy loss. I am also learning and unlearning what’s causing this loss. And I’m hopeful that more contemplative, introspective practices like RAIN can bring us all home to ourselves and to more humanizing and harmonizing orientations.
Originally published at heart-head-hands.com on May 5, 2017.